Gains in farmers’ productivity, along with advances in environmental stewardship, mean that federal regulators could increase the renewable fuel volumes in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) without having discernible adverse environmental impact to land or water, a new study shows.

The study, done by global research firm Ramboll and sponsored by biofuel trade group Growth Energy, found that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could boost production and consumption of biofuels without increasing the land used to raise corn. That’s because farmers have steadily increased yields per acre while they have reduced the impact on land and water, it said.

“From the lab to the farm, new innovations have allowed us to ramp up production year-after-year, without expanding our environmental footprint,” said Emily Skor, Growth Energy CEO. “That track record of environmental progress is supported by a wide body of research from public, private and academic sources. Today’s report will help regulators in Washington wade through misinformation and make decisions about the future growth of biofuels based on sound science.”

USDA study

The Ramboll study dovetails with a study released earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) which found that greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from corn-based ethanol production are about 39% lower than gasoline, and even lower if the biofuel plant is fueled by natural gas.

That reduction in GHG emissions, which is much greater than previous estimates of ethanol’s greenhouse gas advantage over gasoline, also came from U.S. farmers’ ability to increase yields without bringing more land into production and widespread adoption of conservation measures, the researchers said.

Also contributing was the push by ethanol plants to increase efficiency as they convert corn into biofuel and co-products, they said.

Both studies found flaws in earlier studies which speculated that increased biofuel production would prompt farmers to convert more pastures and forest acres to boost corn plantings.

The Ramboll study noted that corn acreage across the United States has remained close to or below the levels of the 1930s despite explosive increases in demand for corn as livestock feed, human food and biofuels. The difference, it said, was a seven-fold increase in corn yield per acre.

Continued gains

The Ramboll study also said that advances in technology, such as sustainable farm management and precision agriculture, will continue to reduce the potential for water quality impacts in key farming regions.

The authors of the Ramboll study noted the impacts of biofuel production should not be examined in a vacuum and that petroleum production has environmental consequences of its own.

“Spills of petroleum, gasoline and a wide range of other fluids used in the exploration, production and refining processes as well as land use change to support those activities all have an adverse effect on water quality, ecosystems (including wetlands), and wildlife,” they wrote.